He sat in the dialysis recliner. Mr. Dieter was a big man, still in shape. He made the chair look small. His white hair was thick, despite his being nearly eighty years old, and combed back. He wore an eye patch and an ascot. His
left hand had been amputated a long time ago, leaving a gnarled, petrified stump.
“I’m Dr. Larco. I should warn you, sir, that my mother was Jewish.”
He ignored my statement and said, “It is a pleasure to meet you, Doctor.” His English was perfect; his accent, German.
“This is your first treatment on the kidney machine?”
“Yes, I think of it as a test flight.”
“You look calm.”
“I am. Calm and faith are the only things that can save you.”
“Faith in God?” I asked. This was getting serious and personal very fast.
“Faith in myself. The Torah says ‘If God had loved us he wouldn’t have made us.’”
“Do you believe that?”
“You read the Torah?”
“I read everything.”
“You’re not frightened?”
“No, I’ve been in worse situations. I’ve had people trying to kill me. You are trying to save my life.”
“When did people try to kill you?”
“During the Second World War. I was a Luftwaffe pilot.”
“You saw combat?”
“How did you lose your eye?”
“Shot down by the Brits.”
“How did you lose your hand?”
“Shot down again. This time by the Americans.”
“They let you fly with one eye?”
“The doctor was my friend.”
“If he was your friend, he should have grounded you.”
“I could fly the jet. At the end there weren’t many pilots left, especially ones who could fly the jet.”
“Were you a…”
“I was not a Nazi. I loved to fly airplanes. I was nineteen when I was first shot down. I knew nothing about politics. I was defending my homeland. I was twenty-two when I went down in the jet. I lost my hand. I fought in the air, removed from it all. There was no swastika painted on my plane. I didn’t record the planes I shot down on my jet. I believed I was a Teutonic Knight, only I flew an airplane rather than rode a horse. I wore a silk scarf my mother gave me.”
“When did you come to the States?”
“After the war the Americans snatched me. I became an instructor. I taught the Americans how to pilot a jet.”
“You never returned?”
“My family was killed at Dresden. The Germany I believed in never existed.”
His lip quivered momentarily; then he recovered.
“Mr. Dieter, I’ll see you on Wednesday.”
I recalled the American war veterans who were my patients. One old fellow came into the emergency room when I was an intern. He was in heart failure. We stabilized him, and upon learning he was a veteran, we shipped him to the VA hospital. We didn’t need another demented old man using the service. A few hours later the man was brought back to the ER with a note pinned to a VA hospital gown stating, “This man fought in World War I, for
the Germans. The old gomer is yours. Nice try.”
Years later another man told me while I was examining him that he had been a medic during World War II. I was interested in the medical aspects. “What could be done in the field for a patient in the 1940s?” I asked.
“Not much. Just give them morphine and hold their hand while they died. But the worst thing I had to do was write letters to the mothers of the boys who died. It should have been the job of the second lieutenant, but he couldn’t do it. So I wrote the letters.”
“That’s terrible,” I said.
“It got worse. When we liberated the concentration camps we had to sort through the stacks of bodies to see if any were still alive.”
“Were any alive?”
“We found a few.” He started to cry.
Mr. Dieter was my first exposure to a veteran of the Nazi army.
He did not return for treatment on Wednesday and he skipped Friday. On Monday when he skipped, I was curious and concerned. I made a home visit.
I rang the doorbell. An elderly woman met me at the door. She was stout, sturdy, and looked very healthy for a woman of her age. Her hair was white and pulled back. She wore red lipstick. She was old, but I could see that she
had once been very pretty.
“Mrs. Dieter, your husband can’t skip dialysis treatments; he’ll die.”
“I know; come and see him. He’s in the bedroom.”
Mr. Dieter was in bed. He was alert, though his breathing was labored.
“Mr. Dieter, if you don’t get dialysis, you’ll die.”
He looked me in the eye. “Yes, and it’s okay. I have been thinking. You see, Doctor, when I flew I was in control. On your machine I’m a passenger. I’ve never been a passenger. It’s like you being a patient. The idea must be
abhorrent to you.”
“We’ll all be patients someday.”
“I look at you, Doctor, and I get the sense you wouldn’t go through what your patients go through.”
His comments were piercing. I don’t know if I would go through what my patients had to endure. I knew too much.
“Mr. Dieter, can I ask you something?”
“They say you did not want a Jewish doctor..Why?”
“It reminds me of what my country did. I helped defend that. I’m embarrassed.”
“It’s been over sixty years.”
“Every morning when I wake up my first thought is that I’m getting in my jet fighter. The memories are always with me. They’re not even memories. Living dependent on your machine is something I can’t do. But I thank
Mrs. Dieter led me to the door. I noticed an old black and white photograph. “Was this his family?”
“Yes, they all died in Dresden—the firebombing.”
There was another photograph, same style and vintage, next to the Dieter family portrait.
“My family—they all died in Poland.”
“By the Russians?”
“No, the Germans—at Auschwitz.”
I noticed her father wore a yarmulke and two little boys also in yarmulkes must have been her brothers. She was young, but older than the two boys, and held an ancient tennis racket. Her mother, who was pretty, held a violin.